Never judge a book by its cover — but sometimes, those covers are so gorgeous that it simply can’t be helped. The new exhibition at the Brandywine Art Museum, Rooted: Family and Nature in Contemporary Children’s Book Illustration, showcases the amazing artworks that illuminate stories and tell powerful tales of their own. The exhibition includes more than 75 illustrations from eight picture books, each by a different author, which tell stories from around the world that traverse the human experience.
The first thing that strikes visitors when they walk in is the bright colors, not just of the artworks, but of the gallery itself. Rather than the standard white walls, the exhibition space is painted in shades of green, blue, and orange. It provides the perfect background to the white frames of the galleries, giving the whole room a sense of vibrancy.
Guests may also notice another unusual thing about this exhibition: “The artwork is hung slightly lower, so our youngest visitors can enjoy it,” said Shadra Strickland, an award-winning artist, author, and chair of the Illustration Department at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, one of the co-curators of the exhibition. It is a thoughtful detail, allowing children to experience the paintings up close.
This is an exhibition that invites close examination. The artworks pop in ways they simply cannot on the page, the materials and mediums enhancing the story being told. For example, the illustrations of Farmhouse, written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, are made using collages and mixed media. The story was inspired by a real ruin on a property Blackall and her husband bought to turn into a creative retreat. The illustrations include actual pieces salvaged from the original farmhouse, including scraps of wood, wallpaper, leaves, fabric, and more.
“It tells the story of an imagined family living in this house,” said Strickland. As the children grow and the family moves on, the youngest now-grown child leaving the door ajar on their way out, nature intrudes, “and the house eventually decays.”
Told in one single-sentence poem, the story moves space and time, from the children’s bedroom decorated with their own artworks to cozy nooks to a jumble of items in an attic to the creatures that move in after the family has left. The layers of the artwork pop in person. Young visitors will delight in trying to peer around the corners of the home and find all the critters (the museum is already prepared for many fingerprints on the sturdy glass.)
Zonia’s Rain Forest, written and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, tells the story of a girl who is a member of the largest Indigenous nation in Peru, the Asháninka. Zonia loves the forest, but one day finds a section that has been deforested. “It is about the people she left behind in Peru, as well as the rainforests there,” said Strickland. The powerful story is enhanced by the lush illustrations which are painted on banana bark paper that was handmade by Indigenous women from the depicted region.
Children’s stories often address big issues, providing context and safe ways to explore a world that can often be challenging. This book “is a useful story to understand how children in other parts of the world are responding to these issues that may be scary,” said Strickland. Like the frequently referenced “Look for the helpers” advice from Mr. Rogers, books like these offer perspectives of kindness and care in troublesome times.
This is a truly interactive exhibit, with the actual books on a stand near the entrance ready to be enjoyed by visitors. You can pick up, for example, The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver, written by Gene Barretta and illustrated by Frank Morrison, then turn around and see the artwork from the cover on display. The paintings are so much larger, letting the details come to life in full color.
“This piece is so rapturous to me,” said Strickland, looking at Diamond Grove, Missouri, one of the oil illustrations from the book. “You see [Carver’s] journey as a young boy and end with him as an old man, reflecting on his work and life.”
Carver was born into slavery and went on to become a celebrated botanist, scientist, and inventor. The vibrant illustrations reveal his curiosity about the natural world around him. It is unusual for modern illustrators to paint with oils, though visitors to the Brandywine know it has a rich tradition, including local artists Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth, whose illustrations abound on the floors below.
The exhibition is a delight for book and art lovers alike. “The textures are just so beautiful,” said Audrey Lewis, associate curator at Brandywine and co-curator of this exhibit. “The farmhouse blew me away,” she said, referencing artworks from Farmhouse. But choosing a favorite among the books and artworks is an impossible task — “They all have their own special appeal.”
Virtual and in-person events will be held throughout the exhibition for art enthusiasts of all ages, including Read-Alouds and Book Signings featuring the illustrators themselves. It is a wonderful opportunity to go beyond the printed page and experience art in a whole different way. The exhibition invites you to pick up a book, get immersed in a tale, and perhaps brighten up your own corner of the world.
Rooted: Family and Nature in Contemporary Children’s Book Illustration is on view at the Brandywine Museum of Art from Oct. 14, through Feb. 28, 2024. The Brandywine Museum of Art is located at 1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford. More information can be found online at Brandywine.org/Museum.